An Italianate Mantle Piece

Eddie has set out some tables in the Acme Building’s atrium in front of his pizza place. Mid‑morning as I walk by he’s sitting at one of them, reading a newspaper. “Morning, Eddie. Ready for walk‑in customers now that things are opening up?”

“I sure hope so, Sy. The building’s still half‑empty ’cause of the work‑from‑homers but I got hopes thanks to folks like you comin’ in.”

“I’ll drop down for lunch later. Don’t see many actual print newspapers these days. What’s in there?”

“Oh, this is the weekly from my cousin in Catania. Etna’s acting up again, as usual.”


“City on the southeast coast of Sicily, about 20 miles away from the volcano. Even with the earthquakes and eruptions Catania’s almost 3000 years old. Funny, in Italy we got Etna and Vesuvius and Stromboli, Greece has Santorini and Methana, there’s a whole bunch strung out through Turkey — wonder why they all line up like that.”

A new voice behind me, but somehow familiar. “Tectonics.”

I turn. It’s the fellow with the dinosaur theory. “Hello, there. I thought you were a paleontologist.”

“Nah, I prefer really old rocks. The Paleontology course was part of my Geology program. You’re Cathleen’s friend Sy, aren’t you?”

“Guilty as charged. If I recall correctly, you’re Kareem who won the Ceremonial Broom?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Will you guys quit playing games and just answer the question? What’s with those volcanoes?”

“Sorry, Eddie. You know about continental drift, right, that the continents are big slabs that float on top of the Earth’s molten‑metal insides?”

“Sort of, Kareem. Which brings up another question. If the layer underneath is molten metal, how come the volcanoes spit rock instead of metal? Anyway, how do we know it’s not rock all the way down?”

“Go easy on the guy, Eddie, you’re up to three questions already. Let him catch a breath.”

“Thanks, Sy. Last one first — we get a planet’s density from its size and orbit. For Earth it’s about 5.5 megagrams per cubic meter. For comparison, silicate rocks at the surface cluster around 2.7 and iron runs 7.9. Earth is just too heavy to be rock all the way down.”

“Those numbers put Earth almost exactly half-way between rock and iron. That tells me that half the planet’s mass is rocky. Surely the crust isn’t really that thick.”

“You might be surprised, Sy. Remember, volume goes up as the cube of the radius so it doesn’t take much crust thickness to make a large volume. Mind if I use a paper napkin, Eddie?”

“Nah, go ahead.”

“OK, here’s a really simplistic model. Suppose there’s just two layers, core and silicates, and density within each is uniform which means that mass is strictly proportional to volume times density. Let’s guess that core density is twice silicate density. If the core mass is half the planet’s mass, the core radius comes to … 69% of the total and the silicate layer is 1900 kilometers thick. That’s 2/3 of the way down to the bottom of the mantle, Earth’s real middle layer between crust and core. Almost embarrassingly good agreement, considering. Anyway, Eddie, it can’t be rock all the way down and the metallic component is pretty well trapped below megameters of rock. What escapes is the heat that melts the rocks for volcanoes to spit.”

“You started out with metal in the middle of the Earth and then you switched to iron. Which is it and how do you know?”

“It is metallic, mostly iron and nickel. We’ve got four lines of evidence for that. Meteorites are the oldest. Lots of them are stony, but about 6% are a combination of two nickel‑iron alloys. We think those came to us from planetoids that weren’t harvested when the planets were under construction. Second is Earth’s magnetic field, which we think is generated by currents of molten metal deep within the planet. Third is seismic data combined with lab data on how waves travel through different materials at high temperature and pressure. The observed combination’s consistent with a nickel‑iron core. Fourth comes from nuclear theory and astrophysical observation — iron’s by far the most common metallic element in the Universe. Build with what you got.”

“But what about the volcanoes?”

~~ Rich Olcott

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